Origin Story Interview W/ Jennifer Cote, Opalia

Origin Story Interview W/ Jennifer Cote, Opalia

Brighter Future

 / 

Aug 23, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #dairytech #milkproduction #PlantBased #AnimalFree #FoodTech #RethinkDairy

Brighter Future

We’re excited to be here with Jennifer Cote, of Opalia, whose company produces cow’s milk using mammary-cell cultivation.

Thank you so much for being here, Jennifer. Do you think you could introduce your business for our readers?

Hello! My name is Jennifer Cote, and I’m the CEO and co-founder of Opalia, a company based in Montreal, Canada. We process mammary cells to cultivate whole milk without the need for cows. This allows us to create a sustainable and ethical whole milk product for various industries, including food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. We currently offer a range of products that are produced with an eye to sustainability and ethics.

That sounds really interesting. What do you think makes your work important?

Well, there are a lot of reasons. Simply enough, for one, the old-fashioned dairy industry needs to improve its efficiency. As it is right now, dairy production requires raising animals for years before they mature enough to produce milk. And once that happens, they typically have only a few years of production before they’re slaughtered.

In terms of pollution and resources, the dairy industry produces a huge amount of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s much worse than carbon dioxide at trapping atmospheric heat and contributing to climate change. There’s also a gigantic use of water: for the animals to drink, for the farming of cattle feed, and even just for spraying out their stalls. In traditional agriculture, very large volumes of water are wasted in a variety of ways.

We think it’s time to consider better solutions for the environment and consumers. Though there may be alternatives, they have yet to drive a fast enough change to more sustainable eating practices because customers are unsatisfied with their taste or functionality. We think it’s time to provide more options closer to what people are used to.

Would you say that you speak to vegans with your product?

Not necessarily; I’d say we communicate more with people who are flexible in their diet— people who are considering reducing their animal product consumption— than with vegans. As a vegan myself, I’ve learned to move away from dairy and meat and adapt to what is currently available. Though flexitarians often try to add more alternatives to their diets for ethical reasons or to be more sustainable, something needs to be added for them to make the full transition to an alternative-only diet that’s wholly animal-free. By targeting this audience and providing them with the taste they enjoy, they can still consume dairy more sustainably and ethically using a product like Opalia.

How did the name Opalia come about?

Finding a suitable name for a business can be quite challenging. At first, we called ourselves BetterMilk. However, we had to change the name due to branding and trademark issues. Apart from that, we’d just grown beyond the scope of being solely focused on milk, and we began to focus on creating dairy alternatives that could cater to diverse markets.

This led us to choose the name Opalia, which has its roots in Roman antiquity. It refers to a festival that celebrates the new harvest season and symbolises fertility, growth, and prosperity. This name signified a new era for dairy and our products.

That’s brilliant; I love classicism. Who had that idea? Was it a person, your co-founder or a marketing team? Or did you get there together somehow?

Well, it was a team effort. Everyone on the team was brainstorming ideas. We looked at various inspirations, from deities to festivals, milk, and dairy. There are so many sources of inspiration out there. We all agreed that we wanted something strong and long-lasting, so we settled on a name from the world of myth. We landed on Opalia together.

That’s great. Do you think you could describe the journey that led you to become a co-founder at Opalia?

My path is pretty unconventional, given that I don't have a background in corporate work like some of my other colleagues. I started this business early in my life because I’d been thinking about doing it since I was little. My family is very entrepreneurial; my grandparents and parents were entrepreneurs, and my mother still is.

I was raised in an environment where building things for oneself was encouraged, so the idea of starting my own business was always present. I knew I didn't want a nine-to-five job because I've always been a hands-on person who doesn't like to follow schedules. But of course I did have some jobs, including managing a catering company for a few years, which confirmed my desire to own a business someday, to be in charge of the decisions, build a team, and have something focused on a subject that mattered to me: like the environment, and animals.

I became a vegetarian at 18 years old and decided to become vegan a couple of years ago. The pandemic in 2020 fueled my desire to do something big and positively impact the world, which led me to co-found a business— one of the hardest fields for a first startup but also one of the most inspiring. It drives me to wake up every morning.

Did your interest in sustainability begin at a young age, as you mentioned during your childhood?

Well, I guess I was always interested in sustainability. In Quebec, there’s a traditional event called “cabane à sucre” where we eat all sorts of traditional Quebecois dishes— like pancakes with maple syrup, for one, and lots of different kinds of meat. I went to these events from an early age, but even early on I didn't want to be there because of all the meat people were eating. It was a little funny, because after eating, you would traditionally go to a little farm to see all the animals. That never made sense to me, considering that we’d just eaten them.

So even though it was a tradition we did every year, it didn’t really sit well with me. I felt this cognitive dissonance for years. On the eve of going there again when I was 18, I told my parents I wouldn't go, because I didn't want to eat any animals anymore.

Did you face any challenges transitioning to a vegan lifestyle, particularly with your family, or did you find it a smooth process?

I was still young, so I was living with my parents, and I had to cook for myself, which was hard because I was used to always coming home and having food on the table. One thing is harder when you become vegetarian or vegan: it's not as easy as going to the grocery store and buying marinated chicken. You have to do everything for yourself. But you learn to love it and find new recipes you like, and it becomes easier with time because you know what to buy. Then, your fridge becomes wholly vegan, and you don't have to be like, "Okay, I don't have mayonnaise; I should use this other stuff," because it's not on hand. It's easier and easier, and it has grown easier ever since I was 18 because a wider variety of products are available. It helps that more and more brands and companies are popping up and coming up with new products.

But was there no resistance from your family or social difficulties?

No, I think my parents were expecting it. I kept telling them that I wanted to do this. What I don't think they expected was for me to stick with it. But then it made sense. And my friends, we were still hanging out and going to places; I was just more thoughtful about what restaurant to choose for instance.

What is your experience that gave you the confidence to take the step and say, “Yes, we're gonna take this idea and go for it and do it”?

I didn't have confidence when I started. It was nice to start a business, but I had no idea of the work that would come with it. I'm glad I didn't know because I don't think I would have consciously decided to do it.

The mission just drove me, and I didn't care about how hard building a company would be or the challenges that awaited me. I just really wanted to do something important. The only way for me to do it was to build a business around it and develop a product that people would enjoy. So, nothing has prepared me for what I'm currently facing. I've learned more in the past two years of building this business than in my entire life. It's something I recommend. It's not just dipping a toe; it's jumping into the pool and learning everything about business, entrepreneurship, and all of that.

What would you say is the most fulfilling part of your work?

So many things motivate me to work with a team towards a common goal. First, it's empowering to know that we're all working towards the same objective of saving cows and creating a more sustainable future while providing convenience to customers. Second, convenience is a significant reason why many of my friends and family are not vegan, even though they still value the environment and sustainability. As I mentioned earlier, learning to cook with more vegetarian/vegan ingredients can be challenging, and convenience is a priority for many people. That's why it is crucial to offer them a convenient product that aligns with their values. We may not have a vegan diet, but I believe we all share a common value for sustainability and ensuring a clean future for the next generations.

My favourite part of working with a team towards a common goal is the feeling of coming together to achieve something better. This sense of shared purpose is rare in many industries, and it is humbling to be a part of a field where all companies work together for a positive outcome. I don't want to speak for everyone, but this collective effort makes our work special. We are creating a new kind of momentum that drives us forward.

With Opalia, have you ever found yourself unexpectedly changing course or pivoting into an unknown area, surprising even yourself?

Well, I can say that I never expected to work in this industry. As a five-year-old, I wouldn't have expected to work to make milk with mammary cells, either. But I guess I’ve wanted to work with people all my life, so I always knew I would be a psychologist, a doctor, or someone who helps people. Maybe the idea of building a business was a little daunting; everything that came with it seemed a bit overwhelming. It's a 24/7 job that requires every second of the day, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to do that.

I jumped at the opportunity to build Opalia, though. Regardless of whether it works out or not, I will have learned something and made a significant change in the world. By putting this idea out there and showing people that even though it's not something you expect to do, it can be done at different ages, career stages, and in different countries. Also, there aren't many startups in biotech in the food space in Montreal and Canada. So I'm happy to have contributed to that, even though it wasn't something I expected to do.

What were the biggest challenges so far with Opalia?

To quote Brett Thompson from Mzansi Meat’s Brighter Future interview, funding and R&D are always at the forefront in a startup, particularly biotech. I’m in the process of fundraising right now, so it’s always on my mind. I did not anticipate such a drastic change. Two years ago, it was much easier to acquire funding. We raised funds for our research, and now we are doing it again. It is challenging, especially as an early-stage startup, since we are innovators in a new field with no established precedents or examples to follow. The need for more traction makes it more challenging to secure funding.

This difficulty leads to the issue of R&D. Everything we do is trial and error since there is limited academic research on our topic. Making progress in the dark is challenging, but we learn a lot, even when things do not work out. It's like trying to find your way with your eyes closed. It is more challenging than we expected, but we keep going because we learn so much.

Have you experienced any significant failures in your life, not necessarily related to Opalia, that provided valuable lessons and contributed to your development as an entrepreneur?

During my school years, I was the type of student who always aimed for the highest grades possible and was very hard on myself to achieve them. My father got sick when I started university though, and it became challenging for me to study as I had to start taking care of him. Thankfully, he recovered, and my grades improved as well— but the experience taught me that despite putting a lot of effort into something, external factors such as our environment could still affect our outcomes.

From this experience, I learned that it is not always about achieving the absolute best result but putting in the effort and doing our best. This lesson can also be applied to the business world. For instance, it is common to face numerous rejections when it comes to fundraising. But even though we may not receive the desired outcome, we should continue to work hard because each effort brings us closer to our goal. The true failure is when you don’t try.

Although I acknowledge that I still have many challenges and lessons to learn, this experience has made me more resilient and taught me to persevere even in difficult situations.

Have you any big “Aha!” moments that just clicked and or your changed views?

We encounter those moments frequently in the lab. Sometimes, seeing something confirms that you're on the right path. Most of the time, the ‘Aha’ moment comes from doing something we never thought would work but ended up working better than what we were certain would work (and didn’t). Additionally, talking to fellow entrepreneurs and co-founders going through similar experiences can be helpful. It reminds us that we’re not alone and that we're all in the same boat. There will be many more “Aha!” moments to come. However, for now, it's more important to celebrate the small victories rather than waiting for one big moment.

Is there a person, book, movie, speech, or any other source that particularly inspires you regarding entrepreneurship?

Many people inspire me, but I don't want to mention just one person because it's constantly changing. I have a funny story about how I got inspired. I read a book called The Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, who is the creator of popular TV shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal". She was a homebody who never did interviews, events, or travelled for work, even though she was incredibly successful. Then, one Thanksgiving, her sister called her out and said she was boring for never promoting her work. So, Shonda vowed to say "yes" to all opportunities that came her way for one year. This decision transformed her life, and the book is about her experience.

After reading the book, I decided to do the same thing because I'm naturally introverted and didn’t particularly like being out of my comfort zone. During that "year of yes", I started Opalia and pushed myself to do new and challenging things. Now, I continue to push myself every day to learn and grow. The book inspired me to do something big with my life: it was so important to me that I had ‘Yes’ tattooed on my wrist to remind me.

That’s very impressive. As an introvert who has stepped out of their comfort zone and become a boss, how has this personal change affected you?

Initially, it was pretty hard for me to handle things independently. I always needed my co-founder's support to attend meetings, and seeking feedback from people was daunting. Any criticism was taken personally, and I found it challenging to detach my self-worth from what I was doing. However, with the help of my co-founder, friends, and family, I was able to push through these obstacles. They encouraged me to understand that negative feedback does not define my value or the worth of my project. I learned that the uncomfortable feeling that comes with stepping out of your comfort zone is what fuels growth and leads you to success. As Einstein said, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”

As an introvert, I still find it challenging to engage in social events, but I have learned to schedule time for myself to recharge. I want to emphasize that being an introvert should not stop one from being a leader in their field, like a CEO, team leader, or other. It just requires more effort and time management to excel.

Since you started your business, what were the biggest compromises or sacrifices you had to make?

During the pandemic, I founded Opalia. It was at a time when everyone was making sacrifices, particularly because of safety concerns, making it difficult to see family and friends. I was extremely focused on building the business, so I didn’t have time to socialise or communicate with anyone. I sacrificed my personal relationships to devote every waking hour to my business. However, as restrictions eased, I made efforts to rebuild those relationships. It was challenging since I had kind of ‘ghosted’ everyone for a while. But people who understood my passion for building the business were supportive, and I appreciate their understanding.

Sacrificing personal time is inevitable, but I prioritise self-care by working out, eating well, and spending time with friends and family. It's easy to say that you should take time for yourself, but it's essential to actually do it. I have attended many workshops on avoiding burnout and am determined to prioritise my well-being.

What future do you envision creating with Opalia?

I envision a future where we don't need to rely on animals for food. In my boldest vision, we would never have to depend on animals for any purpose. Fortunately, many emerging technologies related to meat, seafood, dairy, and textiles are currently in stealth mode or still in the early stages of development.

I am optimistic that these technologies will become widespread in a few years. As a young person, I want to create a better world for future generations. Technology can help us build a more sustainable, ethical, and conscious future and avoid repeating past mistakes like using up all the world's resources and not replacing them.

How would you want to be remembered?

I want people to remember that I tried. I don't want to be someone who talks about achieving great things without talking about the journey and the effort behind. It's important to do your best and try to accomplish as much as possible during your short time on earth. I’d just like people to remember that I did everything possible to build a better future.

I applaud your practicality! What advice do you think you might like to give to any young entrepreneur just starting out, or playing with the idea of creating a business at some point soon?

Really, my first piece of advice is just to do it. Nothing can go wrong if you put your whole heart and best intentions into something. Even if it doesn't work out, you will have gained valuable experience that can be transferred to something else.

My second piece of advice is to stop doubting yourself so much. I struggle with this too, but when I feel unconfident and incapable, I remind myself to keep going even when I feel low. It's important to remember your ultimate goal and keep pushing forward, even on tough days. Don't listen to that little voice that tells you you're not good enough. You are good enough. If one takes the time to learn and stay focused on their mission and vision, anyone can achieve their goals.

How do you recharge yourself to come back from a low state?

I've begun spending time with people in the same industry as me, attending conferences and events focused on our shared mission. It’s energising to be passionate (and to be around like-minded people) about a common goal. Additionally, it's great to receive compliments from those who understand how difficult the work can be. We motivate each other to keep going, and that's how we build a strong community. That’s been very helpful for me.

I also like to listen to podcasts and meditate. Meditation is like a hidden gem because it helps build a strong inner voice. When you feel down about yourself, your mind often tricks you. Meditation allows you to train your brain to be more positive and kinder to yourself. You can learn to observe your thoughts and let them go, even when you feel like you're not good enough. Acknowledge the thought, let it pass and focus on your work. Meditation has helped me build mental and inner strength.

Have you made any good friends in the climate space?

Yes, absolutely. It's an extremely small world, and you tend to meet the same people at all the same events. Over time I built friendships with many brilliant and strong people who inspire me. At first, I felt alone and thought there weren't many people with whom I shared common interests or paths. However, as I participated in more conferences solely focused on women or empowering women, I learned that there are more and more people like me. At first, I felt like a fish out of water, but not anymore!  

When I started, I thought that there was only a linear path: you had to go to university and study business or economics. If you were a scientist, you had to get a PhD in biology or a similarly-defined field to build a business. But I wanted to be an example: if you're passionate enough and want to do something good for the world, you can start from anywhere and believe in yourself and where you want to go. You have to build your path and lay the tracks in front of you so that it becomes something out there that people can rely on.

Have you faced other challenges due to being an entrepreneurial woman?

Yes, definitely. I experience it all the time. It is easy to form biases about someone, particularly on the internet. There is a lot of ageism and sexism everywhere and more often than not, I have to work much harder to make the other person respect and trust me than if I were an older man.

If there was one lasting message that you could share with the whole world, what would it be?

It would be the same as what I’ve been saying: don’t be afraid to take risks and step out of your comfort zone. Pursuing this is something I must keep doing because it is often challenging for me. The field I’m in is particularly difficult, and sometimes I question if I can succeed at all. But things usually improve the next day, and I’m grateful that I did not give up: it’s allowed me to come this far, after all.

And you’ve come very far indeed! We thank you very much for giving us a little of your time. Your idea of animal-free milk is excellent, and we wish you an enormous amount of success.

If you’d like to learn more about Opalia, please see www.opaliafoods.com.

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